I was requested by friends to talk in memory of Levi Gotgeld, a comrade and a friend, who not live to see the fulfillment of our goals and perished in exile by the oppressing enemy.
About thirty-five years have passed since we first met. We were together for a short time only, and then our ways parted. But this period was extraordinary; in itself and in our lives, and its memory had not been obliterated.
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the Russians expelled the Jewish residents of Brisk in Lithuania, which was a fortified city. A group of refugees from Brisk have arrived to Pinsk , and when it was captured by the Germans they were transferred to Siedlce, Poland. Some young people in this group were captivated by Zionism since childhood.
These young people’s meeting with the Zionist youth group of Siedlce was almost a meeting of two extremes, and this might be the reason they were so attracted to each other. Differences in origin, environmental differences, differences in tradition – all stacked together in this case. The sons of Brisk Lithuania came from “opponents” environment, whose education was an amalgam of Jewish education and Modern Hebrew literature studies, and external influence – of Russian realistic literature. Politically-Jewish-wise, members of this group were under general-Zionist influence, which was strong in their hometown, with tendencies towards “Tzeirey Zion”, which began its activities at the time, their Hebrew education – Hasidic Stiebl, and if there was any outside influence, it was the effect of romantic Polish literature. Politically-Jewish, Siedlce had a traditional inclination towards the Bund and Idishizm.
And now these two groups met at this crucial time, with a collision of worlds and perspectives in Poland. With the German occupation, possibilities of legal political action opened up to the Jews of Poland. “Polish Zionist Union” was established (Back then undivided and non-gated, attended by all the Zionist parties) on the one hand, and “Agudat Israel”, especially supported by the occupation authorities (or by its Jewish Affairs clerks, who were members of the radical orthodoxy of Germany) on the other hand.
The merged group went feverishly into action: a Zionist association was founded, a Zionist Club, Hebrew evening classes, a Zionist school, science classes for adults, meetings and lectures, an assault on the fortress of Idishizm – the “Nightingale” society – and attempts to take it to Zionism and Hebrew, participation in the political life in general from Zionist point-of-view etc etc. The spirit in all these actions among the youth group in Siedlce was Levi Gotgeld.
I can imagine him standing as I first saw him: a small-stature, dark, bright-eyed, curly-haired, dressed in a long Kapota and small Hasidic cap. As we grew closer and started joint activity I’ve found him to be lively and boiling, tireless, full of initiative and energy, ready for work and acceptable of any new idea for action. He was literal-minded and with delicate aesthetic taste. His writing style was original, with a tendency to linguistic and conceptual surprises.
At the time we met, Levi Gotgeld was especially influenced by two local older Zionist personalities: the late M. M. Landau, and Hartglas, who lives with us today in Israel. Landau was a Bar Orian Jew, an educated Jewish Zionist with “Ehad Ha’Am” tendencies, gentle and good-spirited he deterred from everyday political action requiring frictions and conflicts with different people. He was sickly and died shortly afterwards in his prime. Hartglas – already known at the time, a spicy Zionist publicist, but full of Polish culture and still unfamiliar with neither Hebrew nor Yiddish. Therefore, he had limited possibility for action among the Jewish masses. Besides, due to his general public activities and his performances on various occasions, he was suspected by the German occupation authorities and limited himself from Zionist political action. The common denominator of both of them was the fact they did not participate in everyday actions at the time. However, their impact, behind the scenes, on our work was enormous and their advice and guidance were very great.
I remember dozens of episodes of Levi Gotgeld’s activities in those years. I will mention only two: one during the German occupation, and the second post-Germans eradication era and the establishment of an independent Polish government.
I mentioned above the German consultants for Jewish affairs. One day Dr. Karlibetz and Dr. Cohen came to Siedlce and held a public meeting, in which they did propaganda for “Agudat Israel”. But they did not distinguish between their roles as members of the “Aguda” and the official role of government advisors. Our group, headed by Levi Gotgeld, referred to them as agents for an opposed political organization, and when they attacked the Zionists, we began to interfere with intermediate calls. When they saw that the crowd is mostly against them, they remembered their official capacity and called the German military police. As a result, we found ourselves, a few days later, before the German military investigator accused of harming the dignity of counsel for the occupation authorities. Arguments were argued, and even the German investigator realized the ridicule of mixing areas and we came out clean.
Another episode occurred during the second period. During elections for the Sejm Adv. Hartglas appeared in the town of Byala near Siedlce as a Zionist candidate. Hartglas (who is, incidentally, a native of this town) competed against the candidacy of the writer. D. Nomberg, on behalf of the Folkists party. The Siedlce Group was called to the aid of the Zionist candidate – due to its proximity to the place, and also on the occasion of the candidate being a native fellow. Levi Gotgeld was, once again, the moving spirit of successful propaganda activities and organization. (as an example of the practiced propaganda methods, I’ll tell one in detail. Hartglas never spoke up at meetings for his own benefit. Noah Frilotzki, head of the Folkists, appeared at the meeting in favor of Nomberg, and said: “Do you know, Jews, why the Zionist candidate haven’t appeared in front of you? Because he does not know to speak to you in your language, he does not speak Yiddish”. This was answered, in the debate that followed, by the late Dr. Esther Mangal: “Mr. Frilotzki told you that our candidate does not know Yiddish. I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that the Folkists candidate will not know how to speak in the Sejm, since he does not know Polish … “
Sometime later our paths parted. I left Siedlce and moved to Warsaw to work at the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Zionists. We continued to meet during joint work conferences etc. In 1920 I left Poland to London as a delegate of “Zeirey Zion” – “HaPoel Ha’Zair”; I never returned to Poland, and in 1921 moved to Israel.
For few more years we were in touch by letters. When I was in London L.G has informed us about a Yiddish Zionist newspaper he published in Siedlce. And, at my request, letters from London were published in this newspaper. After my immigration to Israel correspondence between us became more and more feeble until it completely stopped.
Others might tell about the last period of L.G’s life. But I am confident that if asked, he would indicate the period I tried to describe as the most important and most interesting part of his life.